Things and Objects
This post is copied from an assignment I did from a phd course on the culture of materiality at Gothenburg University. It’s based on my reading of “Things” edited by Bill Brown. All page references are from that book.
Coming closer to things often only shows us how far away they still are from us
[Simmel in Brown p.6]
Poetry, unlike theory, brings out the unpredictable in the familiar (6). A theory of things is therefor an oxymoron. The more a theory turns to matter, the more it has to back away. Theory can’t approach things because it makes them objects. One can question if the task of theory at all is to get closer to things or if it on the contrary is to turn the things into objects in order to understand what they could be that they aren’t now.
Naturally, it is impossible to take on a neutral meta-perspective in this discussion. I cannot for example say that “the thing is looked upon as an object” or vice versa. There is no neutral being apart from turning things into objects and objects into things. Not even the concept of being qualifies. Neither does it help to say “the entity can be seen as either thing or object”, because what is an entity apart from its being as thing or object?. So when asked what the object is of this investigation, what is the thing I’m trying to do? I cannot give a clear answer.
That is why I can’t write an introduction that situates the investigation in this text from an outside perspective. Poetry can uphold this suspension. It can talk about all these things (there is that word again) without settling for one or the other.
Theory and poetry, objects and things, clarity and obscurity. These are topics my paper cannot handle without itself falling apart, entering loops and worm holes. This introduction is the last stable ground. Let’s accelerate into the fractal cipherspace.
Brown – Looking at Things
As they circulate through our lives, we look through objects (to see what they disclose about history, society, nature, or culture – above all, what they disclose about us
Here, Brown tries to solve the dilemma by doing what Harman would call overmining. We cannot look straight at the objects, only at the abstract concepts – history, society – that they are an instance of. The problem of this approach is the same “hot potato” problem that Harman accuses Latour for. That if we only see the relations, we never really arrive at something. The problem of causation for example is infinitely postponed. Latour would probably also be uncomfortable with Browns solution. Because what does it mean to say something about society, history, nature and culture? Are these abstraction also not constructed by actor-networks? And then we are back in the problem that we can’t look straight at them, neither through other objects.
The word [thing] designates the contrite yet ambiguous within the everyday. (Brown 4)
The word thing in this sense does not designate simply an object, not a solid lump of matter. It designates a sufficiently narrow space for action. “Get that thing”, “remove that thing”. It designates something operating in the background. “There is a thing about this open that I’ll never get” (Brown 5). “Do the right thing” – turn the current situation into the prefered one.
Brown distinguishes between two things; Thing One and Thing Two. The first is things as “the amorphousness out of which objects are materialized” (Brown 5). Objects crystalize from the muddy waters of things. Objects are something more defined and limited. The latter Thing is “what is excessive in objects” (Brown 5). Objects are mere material entities, but the object as thing also includes something with a history, traces, a “metaphysical presence” (Brown 5). “The magic by which objects become values, fetishes, idols, totems” (Brown 5). The thing is the material object placed in a system of relations that gives it certain meanings or functions. The first thing is before the object, undermining it, and the second thing comes after it, overmining it. Things are more entangled than objects, which seems to separate themselves from the rest of the world.
The difference between things and objects can be described as a difference of a perception apparatus. An object emerges in focus with short depth of focus, blurring out everything else, while when looking at things the perception tries to capture everything. As soon as it has something in focus, it zooms a bit to much in or out and looses it.
For Harman overmining and undermining are ontologically flawed positions compared to the object-oriented one. That might be true if we concern ourselves only with “first philosophy”, but as strategies for research programs, they do have some merit. From the perspective of a given, situated perspective, there is always thinging and objectifying going on, whatever the metaphysical status of things and objects might be. Things have meanings and relations, the world seems at times amorphous, but objects also break out of systems of meaning to aquire different roles, just as the amorphousness sometimes is captured with a temporary clarity. The real critique of overmining and undermining perspectives is perhaps not the two as research practices but how they confise ontological and epistemological levels.
Things lie beyond the grid of intelligibility the way mere things lie outside the grid of museal exhibition, outside the order of objects.
Museums perform a peculiar act. Objects are first separated as individual entities, then brought back into relations by gaining a fixed position within a system of meaning in the history of art. The museum exhibits art objects, not art things. Perhaps it has art things laying somewhere in a box down in the basement. Objects are therefor not without relations, but the relations are limited, filtered. An art object relates to certain styles and periods of art history, but not all. The meaning of things is more uncontrolled. We can dig up things from those boxes and start to remember old memories, let the mind drift away.
“[T]he most familiar forms, once we look, seem unpredictable and inexplicable, to poets and physicists both” (Brown 6). The first, but only the first, questions are “questions, in fact, not about things themselves but about the subject-object relation in particular temporal and spatial contexts” (Brown 7). This has been termed “correlationism” by Quentin Meillassoux – that questions about things always turn into questions about our relation to things. Objects are turned into subject-object relations.
Tiffany – Obscurity at the Heart of the Matter
Similar correlationist views of things is discussed by David Tiffany in relation to old Anglo-Saxon object with inscriptions of ownership and manufacture written on them.
Unlike the phenomenon of the modern commodity fetish, which comes to life only at the moment of exchange, these artifacts speak on the occasion of their manufacture, or under the conditions of ownership (as distinct from simple possession).
Surely the distinction between ownership and possession is clear to anyone who ever read the EULA of their software. Today we can find a lot of things about our objects. What they contain, where they were made, who else owns similar objects, how to modify and repair them ect.
One of the reason that humanistic critique on matter has remained correlationist is that it has left the things themselves over to scientists. Only science has been allowed to have an account of material substance and what separates it form the realm of ideas (Tiffany 75). What, after all, can the humanist scholar say about things in themselves with the poor methods of literary critique and simple human observation, lacking all the precise instruments of the scientist?
What do the intuitive properties of an object (what we can perceive of it) have in common with the invisible foundation of material substance?0
Poetry does not have the proper devices, only the analogy:
[M]aterialism in its most rigorous forms descends unavoidably into language, to a place where matter is mostly not matter, where matter cannot be distinguished from the tropes and analogies that make it intelligible.
It tries hard though. As Tiffany says:
Mallarmé wants to accomplish consciously […] what the photographic machine does outside any consciousness.
The photographic machine is part of what Kittler dubbed “discourse network 1900” together with the cinematograph and the phonograph. Part of the technical media that can capture the real without going through the interpretation of the real into meaningful symbols as the poets had to do before. The poet cannot capture the real as positive like the technical media. Only as a negative, as a lack within the symbolic space, as an empty kernel of the structure of language, as a poetic triangulation:
For that is what a riddle does: it withholds the name of a thing so that the thing may appear as what it is not, in order to be revealed for what it is.
The object remains dark, un-illuminated. A darkness that is “associated with pleasure” (Tiffany 80). The darkness allows the object to act upon our desires and “to speak directly to us, even as its identity remains a mystery” (Tiffany 80). Not only does the riddle let the object remain in the dark, “the dark speech finds an image of itself in the cryptic nature of the thing it brings to life” (Tiffany 81). The object is not only dark and inaccessible to us, who as mere poets trapped in language are unable to grasp its full nature. It is also cryptic and obscure in itself, fundamentally dark, what Graham Harman calls the withdrawal of objects – the object is inaccessible even to its own components, yet equally real. Through the riddle we discover that the inaccessibility of object to language is in fact not a human flaw that we are forever doomed to lament and cry out in poems, but a fundamental structure of reality. The withdrawal of objects from language is our way of touching them.
Obscurity must be understood as a phenomenon occupying a position along a material spectrum of darkness, ranging from the unclear to the obscure to the opaque. (Tiffany 81)
Darkness is in fact withdrawal in a physical sense. Light is not emitted from the object. Light withdraws into the object and rests there. But is it possible to shine light on the darkness of objects without reducing the object to its illuminated aspects?
In the book of Exodus (10:15) the plague in the form of a swarm of locusts arrive that “covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened”, explains Tiffnany (82).
Evidently, there is a correspondence here between the obscure nature of the swarm and the darkness produced by the swarm, which in turn gives way to a darkness that is somehow autonomous.
The body of the swarm is unintelligible. It swarms around you and rupture the ordered symbolic space, spreading a chaotic, ungraspable darkness. Lacan called this rupture of the symbolic, the real. The darkness of the swarm is both a property of the swarm and the effect it creates, similar to the kind of unintelligible noise that can only be captured by a phonograph.
The obscurity is not opaque. There is a “corporeal aspect of obscurity” (Tiffany 82). In Harmans words, even if the real object withdraws, we still “allude” to the object in the sensous qualities we perceive. The paradox of approaching objects is to make “darkness visible” as Milton has it. This is according to Tiffany different than the perspective of Auerbach who sets up a an opposition between realism and obscurity (Tiffany 83).
The two styles, in their opposition, represent two types,: on the one hand, fully externalized description, uniform illumination, uninterrupted connection, free expression… On the other hand, certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed. (Tiffany 82)
Perhaps instead of an opposition we can sense a dialectic of the real and the obscure. Johnson refers to Vergil’s lyric as saturated with “the beautiful filtered light that reveals realities only to hide them again” (Tiffany 86). According to Johson attempts to account for the materiality of obscurity in Vergil as “the process of becoming nothing” (Tiffany 87.
Overtaken by darkness, a body becomes increasingly obscure and, in time, it becomes “nothing”.
This corporeal obscurity could perhaps be found in the difference between black and blackness, or more clearly in the Swedish distinction between svart and svärta. Svärta is an active process of becoming. In Grahams poems, Tiffany says, the light of the illuminated material objects “tends to darken with air, or dust, or moisture; to darken into song, or storm, or flesh”. In the theory-fiction of Reza Negarestanis Cyclonopedia this role is overtaken not just by the dust of the middle eastern sand storm but primarily by the oil – that black, soggy liquid that emerges from the depths of earth as threatens to destabilize the geopolitical landscape of every region it touches. Cyclonopedia rests on the trope of the unnamable and unseen forces of cheap horror flicks, sometimes literary referred to as “The Thing”. It is destabilizing the symbolic order, but in a more corporeal sense than the horrors of Lacan (and thus Hitchcock following him) where the real is simply the negation, object a, of the symbolic. It is corporeal the way a heavy bass sound coming from the sound system of a black metal concert is corporeal in that it is perceived by the whole body, of the rattling of rib cages, feet and knees rather than just the ear. Grahams things, Tiffany says, "possess both the stable form of an object and the nebulous body of a meteoric phenomena (Tiffany 92).
But let’s come to our senses after this obscure passage. Are we dealing with a true obscurity of objects here, such as Graham Harmans “withdrawal” suggests? Or is the obscurity simply an epistemological one, created by either too much an overload of sensory impressions or too weak a signal in the wrong spectrum for the human sensory apparatus to handle? In other words, is the obscurity really ontological or is it epistemological, capable of being reproduced even digitally with a fully transparent algorithm? Perhaps it can be seen as both at the same time. For Graham Harman and his “object-oriented ontology” this difference is crucial since he claims that philosophy since Kant has constantly been confused and turned ontological questions into epistemological ones.
Tiffany seems to say that it is an ontological obscurity: “poetry […] excels at producing images in which the invisible foundation of matter rises to the surface of things and the mutable forms of intuition dissolve into the hidden ground of their abstraction” (Tiffany 93). There poetic things “hover just below the threshold of objecthood” (Tiffany 93).
As he says about Hopkins:
Instead of starting with an ordinary object and allowing the object, through the material and figurative operations of the poem, to decompose, to dissolve into the invisible substance of its material foundation, the method of Hopkins’s materialism, by contrast, starts with an image of the penumbral substance of things – a storm – in order to bear witness to the objectification of matter through language. (Tiffany 94-95)
If the obsqurity is simply epistemological, philosophy shoudl stand for raitonality and clarity against the obscuring, quasi-religion metaphysics of poetry. If the obscurity really is ontological however, poetry poses a real stylistic challenge to philosophy. What style does philosophical methaphysics has to communicate its ideas and concepts in if objects are really withdrawing, if the obscurity is really ontological? Poetry solves this dilemma by not alluding to the materiality of the object but itself becomes material as media. Tiffany:
Faced with an unknown – and perhaps unknowable – event, the port is nearly abandoned by words; the poem begins to unravel. (Tiffany 96)
Ones again it is the weather, an all encompassing phenomena for the subject, a hyperobject as Tim Morton would have said, that makes language impossible.
For we have already seen, on several occasions, how a poem is inclined to discover the nature of its own materials in the substance of darkness and the weather. (Tiffany 96)
The poem is not able to speak of the object anymore, not even dialectically, when faced with the hyperobject; an object that the subject can’t even see the limits of since it is immersed in it. It can’t even name the darkness to turn it into an object since that requires a certain distance. However philosophy can hardly do this and yet not disintegrate as a discipline where arguments somehow needs to be compared and evaluated, where things need to be named and objects clearly defined.
[T]he reality of matter must always remain uncertain, always a problem that needs to be taken into consideration. Hence the study of material culture, for example, should never take for granted the material existence of its objects. (Tiffany 97)
It is our everyday, limited, understanding of the world that turns the ontology into epistemology. Perhaps one day, Tiffany concludes, our everyday lives will be sufficiently complex to enter the same wavelength as that of the poem and science:
[I]t may one day appear reasonable to assimilate our understanding of ordinary bodies to the invisible – and frequently impossible – features of material substance.
Schwenger – Death is not the End
Peter Schwengers article begins with quoting how Swift satires the “notion of a perfect correspondence between words and the physical things they denominate” by the story from “Gulliver’s Travels” of how the “Academy of Lagado” have ceased naming things and simply decided to carry them around.
Hegel on the other hand suggests that things only become meaningful as dead objects, as ideas, by being named. We murder things by naming them, they become simply a preserved snapshot, but we also “murder to create”, since it is only then that they get any meaning for us. We are now back at the museal object that is first killed in order to turn the thing into an object and then exhibited, given a position within a system and a discourse.
“My speech is a warning that at this very moment death is loose in the world,” Blanchot tells us.
It is by modeling, naming and measuring reality that we gain the ability to act on it in a meaningful way.
The death of the thing, then, is the price we pay for the word
But the thing return like zombie from the dead a object, now as a correlate to the human subject.
It is assimilated into the terms of the human subject at the same time that it is opposed to it as object, an opposition that is indeed necessary for the subject’s separation and definition
(Schwenger 137 commenting on Heiddegger)
The object, unlike the thing, is first and foremost something on the inside of the subject, a sensual object. The thing-in-itself, according to Heidegger, “remains for us a mere x” (Schwenger 137). However, in every appearance of the object, “we unavoidably think also of this x” (Schwenger 137). Graham Harman would say what we allude to the object (or the object alludes to us). The thingness of the object appears to us as the withdrawal of the object from its relation to us and the shifting local manifestations (Bryant) that it presents to us.
[B]eyond that knowledge we always know something more, namely, that there is an unknowable otherness to the thing.
The thing now returns as precisely the withdrawn of the object. The thingness of the object is its ability to surprise us with new appearances yet still remain the same…thing. The word, according to Schwenger, is our “instinctive refuge from the thing’s strangeness”. We name things and turn them into objects. Art (and perhaps metaphysics form now on) has the paradoxical task of reversing this process. According to Shklovsky:
Art exist that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony
Shklovsky tries to “return the object […] to the strangeness of a thing” (Schwenger 138). But Schwenger means that this is an impossible task:
Art does not exist “to make one feel things,” for our feelings are not equivalent to things, and to feel things is not to attain the state of things. The things that are felt are only aspects of our own subjectivity. (Schwenger 139)
We can pose the ontological question: Does being consist of things or objects? That we can’t answer. Either being is things that we turn into objects by the power of words or it is actually objects that our muddy perception apparatus turns into things out of confusion. The first could be said to be the humanist answer. Here represented by Schwenger:
No matter how refreshed and vivified perception may be, it is still a subject that is doing the perceiving, one that is opposed to and distanced from the thing it has turned into an object. (Schwenger 139)
We, and only we, the powerful humans with our almighty language has the power to grind things into sharp objects. The mind is the only (or perhaps machines programmed by human minds) entity capable of splitting up the fused reality into objects.
If words throw the things of this world into nonexistence, as Blanchot has asserted, they then move into the vacancy with an existence of their own. (Schwenger 139)
Now, this process of objectifying thingness by words, language and definition might be total or, as Schwenger means that Stein invites us to consider, as “a process of making sense, without any intention of arriving at a definitive sense” (Schwenger 141). This statement open up a possibility of a relation, however vague, between the objects in our minds, sensual objects, and the real objects, or things if one wish, of the world.
But what does this power of the mind come from, an why is it that only the mind, being one material entity among many, has the ability to chop up reality into pieces? Isn’t rather the opposite true? That the world may well be a clearly defined, discrete universe of object but that our slow, imprecise perception apparatus aren’t able to distinguish clearly enough and instead thinks that the world in made of things? This would be the post-human answer.
The role of philosophy emerges here as a conflicted one. One the one hand, for the love of wisdom, wanting to account for reality as it is. One the other hand, wanting to account for this in a clear way, through language, therefor always risking doing unjustice to the richness of the world, reducing it only to one of its aspects.
Hegel recognizes that any thing is made up of various aspects; however, these are not comfortable fusions but differences, which are spreading.
[T]he thing is now bigger, now smaller, now distinguished by color, now by texture, now by density. (Schwenger 143)
The thing makes differences. The thing actualizes potentialities. It is impossible to capture the object by only one of its local manifestations. It will immediately change into another shape:
No matter what object, it’s enough to want to describe it, it opens itself up in its turn, it becomes an abyss, but this can be closed up again, it’s more manageable; one can, by means of art, close up the pebble again, one cannot close up the great metaphysical hole, but perhaps the closing up of the pebble will stand in for the rest, therapeutically.
(Ponge in Schwenger 144)
The effort of the subject to try to approach the object becomes a compulsion according to Schwenger:
As in Freud, it may indicate a simultaneous necessity and impossibility, a repeated baffling by the trauma of a Real.
This trauma, which is also the trauma of philosophy, says Schwenger, is less a horrifying shock experience as the continuous fractal opening of the everyday of the real, revealing ever more complexity the closer one looks. He then goes on to compare this to the death drive in Lacans version where it is associated with the dynamics of the lost object (145). This compulsory attempt at retrieving the lost object can perhaps be an explanation to the recent rise in literature on material culture in philosophy and literature criticism. But the compulsory production of new discourse on the topic reveals only that it will never reach its objective. This exercise is not without its pleasures, as noted by Schwenger (146), nor, one should say, unable to produce a few academic careers but it is "fused with what goes beyond it (144). We can recall here the debate between Foucault and Deleuze on this topic where Foucaults focus is on the pleasures of the body. Deleuze on the other hand criticizes this view saying that pleasure is the killing of a process of becoming that he associates instead with desire. As Ponge says, quoted by Schwenger:
It is exactly this way that writing must be thought of: not as the transcription, according to conventional rules, of some idea (exterior or anterior) but, in reality, as an orgasm: as the orgasm of being or structure, let’s say, conventional to begin with, of course – yet which must fulfill itself, give itself, exultantly, as such.
Writing is not representation of neither ideas or reality. It is a symptom of it. As an orgasm it is also something that is not under control of the subject, but something that takes on a life of its own. For Lacan, das Ding is a thing that detaches itself from the “associative web” of the subject to become objectified. This is perhaps most clearly explained by Zizek commenting on Dr. Strangelove and Peter Sellers characters fight against his own arm trying to do a nazi salute when holding his speech in the war room. Therefor, for Lacan “das Ding is not merely a part of another physical object; it is a Thing in one’s psyche that has come into being with an object’s loss” (148). It is “both the lost object and the psychic dynamism formed around its absence”. Lacan then sums up:
The symbol manifests itself first of all as the murder of the thing, and this death constitutes in the subject the eternalization of his desire.
The thing is therefor, in all art and philosophy, represented by emptiness since “it cannot be represented by anything else – or, more exactly, it because it can only be represented by something else” (149). It can never be represented by something that is equivalent to itself. It can only be the emptiness that is triangulated by other representations, like the Jug encloses a hollowness. This emptiness is forever haunting language and the subject.
Death – is not the end of the story.
Mitchell – A Romantic Interlude
The great temptation for romanticists is to think that our gesture of getting physical with romanticism is an accomplishment in itself. We are in danger of supposing that somehow the turn to the physical is a tough-minded and realistic gesture, a politically progressive act of getting down to the concrete, hard facts, the obdurate stuff of things in themselves, an escape from old-fashioned romantic idealism. And of course the more closely we look at both romanticism and the physical world, the more difficult it becomes to sustain such illusion. The physical is a thoroughly metaphysical concept. The concrete is (as Hegel points out) the most abstract concept we have; bodies are spiritual entities, constructions of fantasy. Objects only make sense in relation to thinking, speaking subjects, and things are evanescent, multistable appearances; and matter, as we have known since the ancient materialists, is a “lyric substance” more akin to comets, meteors, and electrical storms than to some hard, uniform mass.
Mitchell claims that we have entered a new era of things, what he calls “biocybernetic reproduction”, where he seems to refer to the so called NBIC technologies consisting of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science and the merger between the fields. He says that:
The slogan for our times the is, not things fall apart, but things come alive. The modernist anxiety over the collapse of structure is replaced by the panic over uncontrolled growth of structures.
This statement can be located quite precisely in time. Post NBIC revolution (and the coinage in the report Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance in 2004) but pre the 2008 financial crash, at the peak of the avian flu crisis. Today, some of these exponentially growing structures have run their course and come to a grinding halt, suffocating the rest of society. Perhaps the decay of overgrown, putrefying zombie systems and what they decompose in the process is what our current age of things is about. It is an era of complex, interlocking systems where risks and crises replicate throughout the system.
Mitchell is anyhow correct that we are living in an era with a heightened sense of the importance of things, something he also says is the case with romanticism. For this he relies on Foucault who says in *The Order of Things" that the romantic period was characterized, contrary to common conceptions, as a move to the non-human world of physical things (Mitchell 233).
So what does the turn to the material world of things, both in our present day and in the romantic period amount to? As Mitchell has already suggested, there is a risk that it is immediately seen as a turn to the concrete matters at hand, just because it supposedly deal with concepts that tries to represent the material. Mitchell instead calls attention to Marx’s idea of “the concreteness of concepts” (Mitchell 240). Instead of thinking that concepts about materiality correctly depict the material world, Marx highlights how supposedly ahistorical concepts have origins in concrete, historical matters. This includes the dialectic of realabstraction when the distinctions made by the concept also come to shape the way distinctions are made in the material world. Mitchell goes on to cite Paul de Man’s critique of material concepts that speak of a “happy relationship between matter and consciousness” (Mitchell 241) when the fact that the concepts are expressed as language makes this impossible.
Ones again, a paradox is located in the heart of philosophy.
Frow – Little Black Boxes
Frow begins with taking a break from writing an article. He renovates his house and find in this practice “a kind of knowledge different from intellectual knowing (which is, nevertheless, always a matter of paper and ink and electric currents running through machinery)” (Frow 346). He issues a warning though, of combining house-renovation with meditation of things. He warns of the trap of the simple object, with its apparent “ontological purity” (Frow 346) and the nostalgia associated with it. A thing one i able to grab on to or operate on with ones hammer. That is not the kind of things that surrounds us today.
Simple things almost turn into subjects by their unwillingness to return our gaze. The pebble, he says, “so purely a thing, so deeply withdrawn from capture by other” (Frow 348), become an irreducible singularity that we often only associates with subjects. The thing in itself, freed from its “merely instrumental status in a world of human uses” (Frow 349). In them, Frow says, we see ourselves. These, we can handle and comprehend. But there is a problem of scaling of this object-oriented understanding of the world. As soon as we increase the spacial scale of objects and increase the speed of them, the object-orientation risks disintegrating and a certain vertigo emerges where we tend to return to the more ambigous concept of things.
Frow moves on to Richard Powers account of a camera in how novel Gain. Powers describes how the camera, when unfolded, reveals all its traces of human labour from all over the world that has gone into the production and assembly of its components. I would add to this the non-human labour of eons of time working on natural materials. As Carl Sagan once said: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe”. The camera, at first “literary a black box” (Frow 350) unfolds as a “matrix of histories and geographies”. “To recover things”, Frow says, “is to find again these lost stories […] that have been obscured by the thickening of the surfaces of things” (Frow 350). But we are not getting at the thing itself here, only its genealogy, traces read into its matter. It is still an abstractness of a material form. Frow relates this to commodity fetishism in Marx which he notes has nothing to do with things in themselves but rather “an abstractness which takes the form of a dense materiality” (Frow 350). Things as commodities, not things-in-themselves, “looking through thing”. The commodity, especially an electrical gadget like the camera is often a black box whose thingness is hidden behind enclosed injection molded surfaces. Commodity fetishism is instead an “‘erosion of objects’ ‘singularity’ by the abstract equivalence of exchange-value” (Frow 351). They are “sealed off from their origins” (Frow 351), but also, I would add, from their own components and capacities. Contemporary commodities are often designed to perform only a subset of the functions that their components, connected and programmed in another way, are capable of doing. Radio transmitters have built in resistors to reduce their reach, mobile phone close of certain operations in their micro chips and software is programmed with all sorts of limitations due to intellectual property considerations.
This has not always been the case, says Frow, and cites a lengthy passage from Leah Hager Cohen’s *Glass, Paper, Beans: Revelations on the Nature and Value of Ordinary Things:
Once, we could not help but to know that piece of earth the potatoes on our dinner plate came from. We knew whose hand shaped and fired the plate. We knew who robbed our shoes, and whose cow was slaughtered to provide the leather. […]
(in Frow 352)
To this I would again add: we knew how things functioned and how to repair them if they broke down. Not only that, the tools and materials needed were at hand. How many can today say that they are aware of what data their mobile phones transmit, where that data ends up and who reads it? How many could open up their mobile phones and replace components, or for that matter manufacture new ones of the old ones broke? The answer is simply none. No one is has the full understanding of all aspects of a modern electronically device. Not only are the stories of objects lost on us in the world of commodities but also the immanence between production and product that are now separated worlds apart.
This last part is important because what is lost is not only the human network that ones went into the production of an object that we now have in our hands but also the many material networks it was part of and still is with its consumption and energy and exhaustion and will be when discarded and burned away. If not we are dealing with yet an abstraction of the thing into human relations and values. Precisely the correlationism that we brought up earlier. Correlationism is not a critique against thinking the entanglement of things with their relations but about putting the relation between things and humans as always the primary one.
Frow instead turn to Gadamer that seeks both “an order of things independent from the order of the human and for the existence of a common sphere allowing a passage between these two orders” (Frow 353). We shouldn’t force the thing to do anything to be granted its thingness, Gadamer says (Frow 354). To use the thing is to violate it, he says (Frow 354), but Frow recognizes that this is yet another division between objects and subjects. To overcome this he turns to Bail’s story Eucalyptus where things are neither fully subjects nor objects, neither is their fusion ever complete:
In the world of this story, the deep metaphysical opposition, the tied dichotomy of difference and mutual constitution between things and representations and between humans and nonhumans, becomes flattened. […] [T]hings and persons exchange properties. […] [Y]ou can still tell the difference between persons and things, but the difference is not an ontological absolute.
Subjects and objects co-constitute each other, often in one and the same thing. This brings Frow to Latour in whose Actor-Network Theory the social world of humans and non-humans are constantly composed and never given. He says this when discussing the introduction of removable film rolls by Eastman in the 1880’s:
But these groups, he argues, were themselves deeply transformed by the technical innovations: ‘The amateur market [in photography] was explored, extracted and constructed from heterogeneous social groups which did not exist as such before Eastman. The new amateurs and Eastman’s camera *co-produced each other.’
Things, of course, as they ester the social world, is not entirely material objects. As Frow says:
Every designed object is the end product of a process of talking, writing, sketching, and calculation. It is accompanied by ‘codes, checklists, maintenance manuals and user handbooks’.
This however is only networks of relations that produce the special thingness of the material object. Discover an electrical appliance one or two decades after its product launch and you will see this surrounding textuality all but gone. The only this left is by material trial and error reverse engineer its function. The transformation from things embedded in relations and mere objects can happen anytime and in both directions. As Frow says:
The conversion from simple to complex, functional to non-funtional, can happen in both directions.
Things, on the one hand deeper because of their connections, history, relations and meaning. On the other hand already tied to a function or system. The object on the other hand, found after some time, taken out of place, can’t be reduced to its former function. Always standing ready to be reintroduced and repurposed in new relations.